Over the last few years I’ve made an attempt to get a new Christmas day tradition going – one that gets me out of the house and into the rural areas just southwest of mom’s place outside of Birmingham. With a quick 45 minute drive towards Tuscaloosa I can find myself in the middle of the landscape where famous men once were praised and where my favorite artist/photographer, Bill Christenberry, continues to make photographs.
Christenberry’s images are mesmerizing; they speak of a place and time that is at once intimately familiar to me and yet still strangely alien in ways I can’t seem to articulate. His photographs document the rural vernacular architecture of a handful of West Alabama counties and through their documentation meandering narratives of place and culture and time unravel without ever succumbing to overly romantic or nostalgic notions. In a lot of ways, his stories are told in ways that are very similar to how an old country road in Bibb County will follow a river or wind around low rising hills – there doesn’t seem to be much direction to it, but it feels right, you know you going somewhere, and there’s no good reason to be in a hurry about it. To read about Christenberry and see some of his work, go here to the NYTimes, or listen to a couple of nice features on NPR.
This year the weather was dark and rainy – not the most ideal for making photographs. But I went anyway, knowing that the time alone in the car would probably end up being more important than any image I could make along the way. I decided that this year I would try to find Sprott, home to a number of my favorite Christenberry pictures. I drove and drove, and found a few nice locations inside the Talladega National Forest, but I never could find Sprott. After I got back and consulted another map I realized I had missed it by no more than 5 or 10 miles to the south.
During my jaunt, I found a number of churches (all in the vain search of the Sprott Church) most of them with their own small cemeteries, full of graves with fresh flowers for the holiday. It was very quiet out – not just the cemeteries and churches, but the fields and the roads and the towns – the kind of quiet that I think only comes on Christmas day after all the presents have been opened and dinner eaten. And it was in this quiet that my mind was allowed to wander, and I could rest and think and reflect on another year past and of my own story that still seems to be unraveling like those back country roads – somewhat without direction, but going somewhere and in not much of a hurry.